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English Song

by on 28 April 2019

Songs of Innocence?

English Song

by Roger Martin and Martin Pagnamenta

Good Seeds at St Mary’s Church, Hampton, 27th April

Review by Thomas Forsythe

In the dim and far distant past, I recall standing in the school hall with other short-trousered boys and singing Linden Lea or other such pieces of beautifully bucolic whimsy. For many of the audience at the Good Seeds recital this was a similar plucking of the strings of innocence from decades ago. Or was it? Listening carefully to this nostalgia-fest, did we not detect that the English countryside of yore was far from innocent?

Shakespeare is always good for a robust look at life and most of the first half of this delightful concert was taken up with songs from Shakespeare’s plays, set to music by Gerald Finzi or Roger Quilter. In fact, we had a version from each composer for two songs, both from Twelfth Night: O Mistress Mine with the carpe diem line, “Then come kiss me, Sweet and twenty, Youth’s a stuff will not endure”; and Come Away Death, although I think Quilter has better understood than Finzi that Feste is mocking Orsino’s melancholy. Quilter also hits the mark dipping into As You like It with Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind.

Finzi’s triumphant feel in his Fear No More the Heat of the Sun in the duet of Guiderius and Arviragus from Cymbeline misses the air of pathos with which Shakespeare imbues this richly metonymic but gently punning elegy. As such he does not serves our singer, Roger Martin well. Martin’s finely determined accurate baritone is very much a chamber voice and it felt that he needed to overstretch his delivery in that he would need to in the role of a sacred choral singer in the large physical space of the nave of St Mary’s church. The drama of Shakespeare and the demands of space point towards a more operatic approach. Nevertheless the reflective themes of the words, the atmosphere of an historical parish church, and the folksy nature of the music throughout the recital spoke loud of the permeated Englishness of this concert.

4 St. Mary's Good Seeds Concert - Pianist

Indeed, the core of the evening was a tour of the English counties. For most of the first half, Shakespeare had delightfully detained us in Warwickshire, but now we were to move on to Shropshire and Suffolk, although not before a pleasantly oenological interval.

Martin Pagnamenta provided precise and purposeful piano accompaniment with seemingly effortless skill; and, during the break, we learnt a little of the strong mark that Martin and Pagnamenta have made to the musical landscape of in and around Chepstow (alas just outside of Merry England).

Most importantly however, Fiona Rowett (herself a very accomplished soprano) told of the work of Good Seeds, the charity that was the raison d’être of the evening’s concert. The Good Seeds programme supports a hundred pupils, helping them to be able to attend school in their village of Mandimba in Mozambique, together with student nurses and midwives. Mandimba, near the border with Malawi, has a sister church to St Mary’s Hampton. The concept of the support is good seeds in fertile ground, an apposite metaphor in the poorest part of one of the world’s poorest countries, now made poorer still by the floods that have followed Cyclone Idai.

Good Seeds Idai

Back in spirit and song in England, we moved on to that lovely but off-the-beaten-track county of Shropshire, immortally described in the poems of A.E.Houseman. In a well interpreted musical setting by George Butterworth these moved from the sweetly sentimental to the potently moving. Loveliest of Trees describes spring blossom and I thought of my own garden where I could in this very moment “go, to see the cherry hung with snow”. Going via the tripping notes of Think No More Lad, the poem Is My Team Ploughing?, the dead man’s question to his still living friend, packs a really poignant punch

We have to cross to the other side of England to Benjamin Britten’s beloved Suffolk, although Britten sourced his Folksong Arrangements from all over the country. The touching O Waly Waly is perhaps even further north, but Martin first gets well into his stride with There’s None to Soothe. However, it is Britten who makes the running with the most earthly songs: his arrangement of the old folksong The Foggy, Foggy Dew beats “come up and see my etchings”. The singer remembers “a fair young maid” who “knelt down by my side, when I was fast asleep” … “So all night long I held her in my arms, to keep her from the foggy, foggy dew”. Well I never … he now looks at his son and apprentice (he is still a bachelor) and can’t quite remember why the boy looks so much like the fair maid.

Martin and Pagnamenta’s charmingly cheerful and cheeky nostalgic trip around the counties was neatly parenthesised by a package of top-and-tail trios. It opened with that archetypal English composer Henry Purcell and concluded a few centuries later with John Ireland’s setting to John Masefield’s Sea Fever. As Martin put it, “A baritone must always sing a sea-shanty”. Nevertheless, the countryman’s diversion still seem to be mainly the country-lass. This it seems is far from a new phenomenon; Tudor twinkles in the eye include John Dowland’s What If I Never Speede, “Either I will love or admire thee”; and John Bartlet’s When from My Love, “She did agree to love, but jestingly”.

Hugh Wright breaks this mould in Martin’s encore piece, Leanin’ on the Gate, where the country lad “Had a lurcher once; better than a gal. Poacher? Well … a bit”. It seems that there is no end to the variety of out-of-town amusements.

Maybe those schoolboys of that dim and far distant past, where I once stood, missed something in wondering what the distractions might have been hiding “down by The Ash Grove”.

Thomas Forsythe
April 2019

Photography by Maurizio Martorana and Lewis Lloyd

From → Music, Reviews

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